08 Jul Sorting Through An American Dream

Last week I decided that I needed to sell my car and buy a Sprinter van, for reasons I’ll explain shortly. The car in question is a 1998 Toyota Avalon, which I bought mostly because Toyota is supremely reliable and the Avalon is big enough to carry my musical equipment. Long ago, I gave up the illusion that I might drive something cool or sexy. Buying sexy cars, like buying sexy shoes, is something for the young.

It’d been a long time since I’ve sold a car and, as this car was the first new vehicle I’d ever owned, I didn’t know that you need the lien release from the bank to show that you have paid off your car loan. I couldn’t find the lien release. Worse, I couldn’t find the title. Nothing makes me more disgusted with the way I run my life than not being able to find vital paperwork. If I were smart, I suppose I would have scanned the documents and saved them on my computer.

Whenever I misplace paperwork — more frequent than I’d like to admit — I tear through my office and my many file cabinets and cubby holes. And the end result is that I get organized. That is, I get more organized than I was. I discover things I didn’t know I had. It’s like finding dinosaur bones in your back yard. This time I found old tax records that had been missing and an old story draft I’d been looking for (for six months) and boxes of canceled checks I didn’t know I had and a box of film slides that go as far back as my high school days. Ancient artifacts.

But I could not find the file folder that contained my car title and repair receipts. It was a huge folder, as I recall, and I can’t imagine having thrown it away. But, who knows? Maybe, in a fit of well-intentioned tidiness, I heaved that fat file folder into the trash, thinking, “Oh,hell, these are only repair records and I’ll never sell that car.” I’m pretty sure that’s what I did — because I’ve done this before. Obviously, you need your car records. All of them. No matter how messy they are.

Just to be clear: I am not advocating that we become hoarders and save every piece of paper that comes our way. I’m just saying that when we think we’re organized — when we feel great satisfaction after having cleaned out our files and tidied our desks — we should not think that we’re done and now, at last, firm in our plans and clear about our future. If growing up and older has taught me anything it’s that you can never say never. You may THINK your life is fixed and stable and that nothing will throw you from your well-worn path. But the essence of life is that it WILL throw you from your well-worn path. This is nothing to fear or guard against. On the contrary, we should be prepared to embrace it.

My plan was to keep my old Toyota until it was no longer drivable. And I was prepared to celebrate this in a defiant show of frugality and eco-mindedness. But then two things happened to change my plan. The first was that Jill got really ill (she’s fine now, on the mend, all looks good). It made us reconsider all of our plans and dreams. One dream was that we’d get a camper van one day and travel around the country. We didn’t know how we would make this happen — a camper van is an expensive piece of equipment — and, besides, we had no place to put it. But we loved the idea of hopping in the camper and taking off, even if only on weekends.

The second thing that happened was that my book, From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story, was accepted for publication (due out in Feb. 2012). Great news but how was I going to promote it? I’ve been advised to hire a publicist for $10-20,000. I don’t have that kind of money. And then, even with a publicist, how was I going afford all the travel that book promotion entails? This book — the story of how Jill and I bought a wrecked frat house (condemned property) and brought it back to its original, Victorian glory, even though we hardly knew each other and knew nothing about house repair — has to find a wide audience. The only way to get this book in front of a lot of people is to go to the people themselves, I decided. So that’s what I’m going to do. Or, at least, that’s the current plan. Next summer, I will drive around the country on the Animal House tour to talk about our experiences as extreme do-it-yourselfers. Jill will fly out to meet me for a few legs of the journey.

A plan like that involves compromises. The van has to fit in our garage, so one of our cars — my Toyota — had to go. The van has to be used and bare bones because we don’t have a lot of money. It has to be a late model with relatively low mileage, for obvious reasons. And making the van into a camper has to be a DIY project, from electronics to window installations. The van is a turbo-charged, five-cylinder diesel made by Mercedes and marketed as the Dodge or Freightliner Sprinter. It’s got great fuel economy, lots of room, and a short wheelbase, which means it fits — barely — into our garage,

I don’t relish the prospect of using a van as my primary vehicle, but sometimes you have to be flexible to live a dream. Mind you, a month ago, we had no idea that we might do this. And then, one morning, I said to Jill, “I have a plan.” After my explanation, I watched Jill ponder the possibilities. Then, with the adventurous spirit that has enabled us to do so much with our old house, she said: “Can you put a bathroom in it?” I said, “I can try.”

By the way: if you have lost the lien release that should accompany your title, just go to the DMV site, click on “forms,” then select the “replace title” option. You’ll download a PDF form and see, at the bottom, a section that allows you to waive the lien requirement by swearing that you owe no more money on your old car.